I have friends who live in Anaheim but take a perverse pride in never, ever, visiting Disneyland. It’s an odd sort of snob appeal, to have a world-renowned attraction in your back yard and not go there. They don’t ignore the place completely, since they often watch the free fireworks that happen every night, but otherwise they might as well be in another world.
Some Redondo Beach residents take the same dismissive attitude toward the pier – a place for tourists, nothing there worth a local’s time. When it comes to dining, this is one of those rare cases where the tourists know more than the locals. There are several excellent restaurants here, among them Gambrinus, the South Bay’s only Russian and Lithuanian restaurant.
Gambrinus opened with a very limited menu and service that was amiable but frequently uncomprehending. The restaurant changed hands about six months ago, and both the selection and the service have changed for the better. The Galickis family all speak fluent English and seem to enjoy explaining Baltic dishes to customers whose knowledge of this cuisine is small to nonexistent, and their preparations of traditional recipes are the best I’ve found in Los Angeles.
On one visit, we started with cold fried bread with garlic, which is usually eaten as a snack with the full-flavored beers favored in this region. This is real Northern European bread, heavy and dark, and when fried with garlic it’s dense, chewy, and unlike any other garlic bread I’ve had. It’s not for everybody – our table of four was evenly divided on its merits. There was no such controversy regarding the “Homemade Salad,” a mix of cabbage, tomatoes, cucumber, carrot, sweet peas, parsley, and olives. It was an intriguing mix with a slightly sweet dressing that brought out the wide variation in flavors and textures, and when we ordered it on a second visit we liked it all over again. On that visit, we were offered a daily special salad of herring covered with a layer of chopped beets and then topped with a layer of Russian-style cole slaw. Many Americans have never taken to herring: a rich, slightly oily fish that is usually served pickled, but this preparation could change their minds. The sweet-and-sour flavors of cole slaw, beets, and fish were a brilliant combination, and very much in line with Californian palates.
We continued with blinchiki, the filled pancakes also known as blini or blintzes. (I have heard people insist that there’s a difference between blinchiki and blini, but all the recipes I’ve been able to find have the same ingredients. The menu at Gambrinus also refers to them as crepes, which is also accurate.) The blinchiki are filled with stuffings as prosaic as potato and mushroom or as luxurious as salmon and caviar. Most are inexpensive at $2.50 each, but caviar can set you back eight dollars. We were in a peasant mood and tried cheese and herbs, potato and mushroom, and cabbage, and liked them all. Three blinchiki, or two with a salad, are a tasty and inexpensive meal, and if you still have room afterward there are dessert blini with sweet cheese or chocolate cream and berries to finish. We never got to dessert because we were too busy experimenting with starters, and always over-ordered.
The main courses here are substantial, especially the grills of sausages, chicken, or pork that are served with either French fries or Russian-style home fries. I prefer the home fries, discs of potato with a garlic and herb crust, but both are good. The meats offered include hunter’s sausage, chicken or pork kebabs, and pork ribs, and while they’re all tasty, I liked the pork kebab best. I don’t know what the marinade was, but it has a slight vinegar tang with strong herbal flavors, and it produces astonishingly tasty meat. The ribs were done with a different marinade that is a bit more like a conventional Chicago-style barbecue sauce, with tomato sweetness and a bit of pepper, and I’d happily have those again too.
Gambrinus also serves seafood and the Russian ravioli known as pelmeni, which resemble Chinese dumplings more than anything else. Pelmeni are stuffed with either pork or potato and mushrooms, but on the night we were there, pork was all that was available. The plump dumplings with sour cream and dill sauce have a good balance of meat, dairy richness, and slight dill tang, and I’d like to try the mushroom version sometime. The star of menu, though, is the fried rainbow trout, which I have to nominate as best trout in the South Bay. I’m partial to trout but find that it’s often overcooked in restaurants, but that’s not a problem here. The lightly breaded fish was perfectly moist and flavorful both times I tried it, and it came away from the bone in steaming chunks. At eleven dollars for a very large portion, this is a gourmet bargain.
Since Gambrinus is named after the patron saint of brewers, it’s not surprising that the restaurant has an exceptional beer list. These include unusual brews like the Latvian Aldaris, a rich porter, the spicy Ukrainian Obolon lager, and all ten of the Baltika line of Russian beers. Those who appreciate richly flavored beers should plan multiple visits here, since most of these beers are on the strong side. Those who prefer other beverages can of course have American beers, a variety of Californian and Armenian wines, or soft drinks.
Gambrinus is one of the new stars of the boardwalk, and a meal there is an affordable luxury – appetizers are all under ten dollars, and dinners run from nine to sixteen dollars. For excellent food with a view of the marina and people watching on the boardwalk, it’s hard to beat the experience.
Gambrinus is located at 136 N. International Boardwalk in Redondo Beach. Open for lunch and dinner daily, parking in pier structure (no validation). Beer and wine served, wheelchair access good. Phone 310-376-9215.